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Ethnocentrism

languages religions “primitive” tribal

Ethnocentric persons believe that the principles and practices of their own tribe, nation, or ethnic group are not just different from other groups, but superior in some sense, perhaps because they are more sacred, or perhaps more reasonable, or more practical. At the highest intellectual level, some cultures regard their own religious beliefs and systems of morality as representing the wishes of the only true God, while they assert that the beliefs of others are derived from a false god, or have been misinterpreted by false prophets. Even among religions that represent “people of the book” —Jews, Christians, and Muslims—some denominations maintain that they are the only people who “got it right,” while other denominations and religions are wallowing in sin and ignorance. Ironically, congregations and denominations are oftentimes most critical of those who, by any objective measure, are most similar to themselves—Shia and Sunni Muslims, Protestant and Catholic Christians, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

Disagreements among religionists at an apparently theological level frequently have social and political consequences for their respective adherents. Mahayana Buddhism, for example, is more ecumenical than Theravada Buddhism. The role of women is frequently at issue among religionists, as well as the proper structure of a family and attitudes toward other “races” and nations. In many cases, these social beliefs are part of a formal cosmology, frequently incorporating a creation story that delineates and rationalizes proper roles in society. For people of the book, the cosmology/creation story that they share is included in the Book of Genesis, with its narratives of the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and the flood, which have been variously interpreted by theologians of the three faiths. All three religions have added supplemental sacred texts—such as the Jewish Mishnah, the Christian New Testament, and the Islamic Koran— which address the cultural differences among the three groups—concerning such social and political issues as pacifism, polygyny, diet, government, and even business practices such as the sanctity of contracts and charging interest for loans.

While large-scale, literate religious groups such as those above have most often accepted each other as “civilized,” in some sense, the same courtesy has not been extended historically to the practitioners of “primitive” religion. The most famous of the early comparative religious scholars, Sir James Frazer, contrasted civilized with “primitive” religions as a matter of real religion versus “magic.” In a classically ethnocentric manner, he managed to define magic in a way that made tribal religions seem to be magical while the “great religions” were not, being characterized as monotheistic and abstract instead of superstitious and magical. Critics soon challenged Frazer’s definitions, pointing out, for example, that Christian beliefs in transubstantiation or the power of prayer clearly constituted “magic” by Frazer’s own definition.

The acknowledged founder of modern anthropology, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, wrote easily and ethnocentrically about “primitive” beliefs in his book, Primitive Culture (1871). Like other cultural evolutionists of his day, he placed existing “primitive” societies on a historical scale leading from savagery to civilization, with different tribal societies of his day representing extinct societies that were the antecedents of “civilized” peoples. At that time, the word savage was also used to describe people known in the twenty-first century as tribal or pre-literate , an even more derogatory term than primitive . Franz Boas, the usually progressive founder of anthropology in the United States, used the milder term in his 1911 book, The Mind of Primitive Man , but his contemporary Bronislaw Malinowski wrote of The Sexual Life of Savages in 1929, and a 1966 book by Claude Levi-Strauss was entitled The Savage Mind , although the term sauvage is considered less offensive in his original French than in English.

For a time in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the languages of tribal peoples were likewise regarded as “primitive.” European traders and travelers often reported that the native peoples of Africa and Indonesia spoke languages that were “guttural,” consisting of mere grunts and noises. Of course, the people who made these observations did not speak the languages in question, and so these comments are more an expression of European ignorance than of the “primitive” condition of native languages. In the twentieth century, textbooks in general linguistics made a serious effort to dispel these misunderstandings about language, pointing out that some languages had more sounds than others, and some had grammars that were more complicated than others, but there were no general criteria that could be used to categorize certain languages as “primitive.” A language might be simple in some respects, such as number of sounds, but very complicated in other respects, such as grammar. Also, they pointed out, it is ethnocentric to describe one language as intrinsically easy to learn and another as difficult. Whether it is easy or difficult depends on what language one speaks already. From the standpoint of English, Chinese is a difficult language. But to one who already speaks a Tibetan language, Chinese is easy. And to a speaker of Chippewa Indian language, Pequot is easy. And to those who speak English, German is easy.

The complexities of cultures maintained by supposedly “primitive” peoples are also apparent in their religious beliefs and ceremonies. The Cheyenne Indians of North America, for example, envision a universe of two poles, male spirituality at the zenith and female materiality at the nadir. The cardinal directions represent philosophical contrasts between such entities as life and death, fertility and sterility, sickness and health, energy and nothingness, good luck and bad, symbolized by various colors, animals, and astronomical features. In their ceremonies, which have been well described, they celebrate good and beneficial plants and animals, and each supporting pole of the sacred ceremonial lodge represents a human virtue. Descriptions of many other religious and ceremonial complexes of tribal peoples on every continent were published in the twentieth century, for example, descriptions of the Tukano Indians of South America, the Kachin of Burma, and the Ndembu of Africa (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971, Leach 1970, Turner 1967). As with languages, the observation that tribal religions were in any sense “primitive” says more about the ethnocentric and often racist and intolerant attitudes of the European observers than about the condition of tribal religions.

Although anthropologists were responsible for drawing attention to the notion of primitive in the nineteenth century, with its ethnocentric connotations of cultural and racial inferiority, they also developed ideas of psychic unity and cultural relativity , which are opposite to the notion of ethnocentrism. The German scientist Adolf Bastian is generally credited with inventing the idea of psychic unity, which states that the brain power and sensitivities of all human beings are essentially the same, no matter where they live or who they are. He offered this idea in his 1860 book Der Mensch in der Geschichte (People in history). Cultural relativism is a similar idea but with many authors, gaining widespread acceptance among social scientists in the twentieth century. The earliest antecedent for these ideas is probably Charles de Montesquieu, who wrote in The Spirit of the Laws in 1748 that whereas Islamic laws worked very well for Arabs in North Africa, Christian laws worked just as well for European societies, because the two cultures were generally different from one another. One culture was not superior to the other, they were merely different. This idea was picked up by twentieth century scholars and elaborated as structural functionalism, making the point that each legal code, like everything else, had to be understood in its social and historical context. All cultures had component parts that fit together to make an integrated whole.

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